It was a long 18 months before UNLV senior Aldair Callejas could once again stand at the back of a theater and watch as the onstage performance captivated the crowd.
As his carefully crafted sound design came to life along with the performers on stage, he quickly remembered why he chose the entertainment, technology, and design career path.
“It’s that crowd reaction that really got me into this career: the way they react to certain sound effects that I designed, or to an artist when they sing a certain note. You get goosebumps,” Callejas said. “Seeing that kind of reaction from the people in the crowd fires me up and motivates me to continue pursuing my degree, even through the tough times.”
His success behind the stage is due in part to the yearslong support he received from one of UNLV’s most long-standing student success programs: GEAR UP. Without it, the first-generation college student isn’t sure he’d be quite where he is today.
GEAR UP’s mission is right there in its name. Its goal is to prepare middle and high school students for the next step in their lives, whether it’s college or another form of postsecondary attainment. It's designed to encourage more young Americans to stay in school, study hard, and take the right courses to succeed in college.
And it's one of nearly a dozen student-success programs that make up the Center for Academic Enrichment and Outreach (CAEO) at UNLV — a stalwart for local students striving to succeed in middle school, high school, college and beyond.
“I would call GEAR UP my second home,” Callejas said. “I’ve been with them since the 7th grade. I grew up with them, and they just introduced me to so many people and opportunities, and that took me from one thing to another, to another, and slowly I built up to what I have today.”
CAEO garnered over $40 million in federal grants from the U.S. Department of Education in its latest cycle to support students like Callejas on their quest to finish high school and attain a higher education. It’s the latest iteration of funding in CAEO’s more than 50-year history at UNLV and in the Las Vegas community.
Since its first federal grant award in 1966, CAEO has expanded to provide support through nearly a dozen programs to thousands of students in schools across Southern Nevada. The latest award will provide federal funding over the next seven years to specifically support two initiatives, GEAR UP and TRIO Talent Search, which help to increase the number of youth from disadvantaged backgrounds who complete high school then enroll in and complete their postsecondary education.
“For more than half a century, CAEO has been committed to lifting up all of Nevada’s students and providing an environment where every student — regardless of their background — can achieve their full academic potential,” said Keith Rogers, CAEO deputy executive director. “The latest grant award is a testament to CAEO’s longstanding record of success in Las Vegas schools, and will help us continue to provide a strategic array of services that help students stay in school, graduate, and realize their goals.”
Over the next seven years, GEAR UP participants from seven local middle schools will be supported with academic and financial counseling, tutoring, after-school instruction, ACT/SAT prep, college tours, mentoring, study skill and leadership development, exposure to cultural events, and other extracurricular activities. The latest grants are part of an expansion of CAEO’s signature programming for local middle and high schools. GEAR UP coordinators — placed in the seven middle schools — will provide critical academic guidance, and then move with the cohort to their respective high schools to help students reach their postsecondary goals.
Callejas, who was introduced to GEAR UP as a student at West Prep Middle School, experienced this wraparound support first hand. In particular, the program provided him his first opportunity to leave Las Vegas, to think beyond Nevada’s borders, and inspired him with ideas about what he could do after high school.
It was during one trip in particular to Southern California where, as he watched mechanical engineers build a 3D model of a car, he thought a career in engineering could be a possibility. That spark, coupled with his love of electronic dance music, became the perfect mix.
“I was a little bit lost, but when I started applying to schools, I found that UNLV had a program where you not only do engineering, but you work with the arts side as well,” Callejas said. “It’s the best of both worlds.”
He put his sound engineering skills to practice for the first time — post-pandemic — for a September 2021 production at A Public Fit Theatre Company in Las Vegas, and most recently for the Nevada Conservatory Theatre’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors.”
While GEAR UP and TRIO Talent Search are the latest programs to receive funding to help students like Callejas, CAEO houses a suite of federally-funded pre-college, college, and adult programs - the largest of its kind in the country. They oversee 26 grants in total.
Upward Bound is another signature CAEO program, but it's set apart by a focus to encourage, motivate, and create an atmosphere for learning particularly in math and science. One of its key features is a six-week summer program hosted at UNLV that gives participants an up-close-and-personal look into college life. Students stay in university housing and participate in college prep and math and science coursework, interact with university professors, and take college tours to out-of-state campuses.
Uri Clinton, executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary for Boyd Gaming in Las Vegas, remembers his time in Upward Bound as a “fundamental building block.”
A student at Western High School, Clinton said his academic record wasn’t the strongest, but after joining Upward Bound, everything turned around. He went from a GPA of 1.8 at one point in high school to graduating with departmental honors at UNLV, and then going on to earn his law degree at Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane, Washington.
“I can tell you that this thing works,” Clinton said. “None of my success would have been possible without the core tools and the support network I received through Upward Bound. Upward Bound gave me a chance, in spite of my family’s income and some of the disadvantages associated with not having as many resources, and put me on an even playing field with my peers.”